Converging on the Object: The Courtauld Metal Bag

By Clara Chivers

The Converging on the Object symposium took place just before closing of The Courtauld Gallery exhibition Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq. ‘The Courtauld Bag’, a piece of Islamic metal work dated c.1300, is the focus of this exhibition, which argues that the object is of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty. Court and Craft, alongside this symposium, marks a significant moment in the history of The Courtauld, which is consciously widening the scope of their scholarship into non-western art. The bag is intriguing; there are questions about its provenance, date and purpose. The coordinator of the symposium Dr Sussan Babaie aptly descried the event as ‘a response to the challenges posed by the silence of the object.’ Converging on the Object was a hugely rewarding day. By approaching the ‘Courtauld Bag’ through their various specialities, the speakers brought it to life and this interdisciplinary approach opened up the transcultural possibilities for its interpretation.

Curator at The Courtauld Gallery, Alexandra Gerstein, revealed how the gallery came to acquire the bag. Considering the collecting practices in 19th-century England, Alexandra discussed the object within the context of the collecting of Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88), whose collection is now at The Courtauld. Judith Pfeiffer from the University of Oxford dated the bag in the Ilkhanid period of Mongol rule (1255-1353 CE). She explored the richness of the visual and literary changes which reveal the complex and ongoing cultural exchange during this time.  Pfeiffer focused the historian and statesman Rashid al-Din, who developed a new vision of the human past and present. As the Mongols adopted Islam, Islam itself changed, which had significant ramifications for its material culture.

Ruba Kana’an from the Aga Khan Museum analysed the bag into the marketplace and the context of Mongol traders and craftsmen. This paper explores the rich material culture of Mosul and by focusing on legal texts it reveals how metalworks were commissioned. Many of the objects in the exhibition describe Mongol ritual feasting and so a timely (post lunch) speaker, Paul D. Buell of the Max Plank Institute, Berlin shed analysed Mongol food and drink.

Ladan Akbarnia from the British Museum presented an interesting comparative piece: a coffer at the the Brooklyn Museum. Comparing this to the Courtauld Bag was an opportunity to discuss the fluidity of cultural identity, East-West cultural connections and Chinese synthesis in the post-Mongol period. Independent Conservator Diana Heath offered us a wealth of information from her close technical examination, showing some fascinating images from before and after the conservation work occurred.

In a thought-provoking finale, the contemporary Iraqi-born artist, Jananne Al-Ani, discussed her recent series of film and photographic works. It became clear how her artistic practice impacts the way she understands the surface of the bag. For Jananne the intricate patterns on the surface of the object naturally translate into the abstract forms of desert landscapes from her aerial photographs.


The Courtauld Metal Bag

The Courtauld Metal Bag

In her conclusion, Sussan remarked that the bag remains ‘alive.’ Indeed, the symposium considered only a handful of ways this piece could be interpreted and showed that there were many other avenues of research. In the final discussion Professor Deborah Swallow commented that the notion of the limitless ways in which we can see objects is an inspiring metaphor for what our discipline of art history is about.

Seventeenth-Century Oil Paintings on Canvas from Safavid Iran: People from ‘Parts Unknown’

As part of the pioneering Persian and Islamic arts lecture series at the Courtauld, eminent Persianist scholar Dr Eleanor Sims examined the case of ‘people from parts unknown’. The works in question were two suites of almost life-size oil paintings from the second half of the seventeenth century, which, being unsigned and un-dated, have both ambiguous origin and purpose. Their style is eclectic, and the subject hybrid, fusing the technique and pictorial conventions of contemporary European ‘prospect portraits’ with anonymous subjects dressed in luxurious Persian, Georgian and Armenian fashions. The suites are further paired off into couples of men and women who turn to each other from the left and the right.

The works are the subject of Sims’s current research, but both scholar and subject have been well acquainted throughout her career. Having originally catalogued the paintings for an exhibition in London in 1975, Sims’s talk presented new ways to think about the emergence this material, which has often been a subject of scholarly disagreement. Questions of who painted these figures is an issue which is perhaps no longer as relevant now as it may have been in the more connoisseurial atmosphere when the images surfaced in the 1970’s. Instead, Sims focuses on the possible intention of the paintings though an expert analysis of the costume of the figures, the curious nature of the objects that adorn the interior settings, any stylistic similarities to European equivalents and the cultural context in which they were produced.

Isfahan, Persia’s seventeenth century capital, was an international showplace populated by a cosmopolitan community including farangi envoys and missionaries from Europe as well as a prominent Armenian community established in the New Julfa quarter of the city. Sims’s analysis of these works interprets them as having been made in Persia, possibly by a European artist working there or within a dedicated atelier producing this type of image. They function then as the grandest of postcards representing the diverse ethnic groups that one would encounter in early modern Isfahan: a souvenir for the European traveller to take home from his Eastern grand tour. Similar large scale figural paintings were not unusual at this time, but could be found around the city in niches of buildings (such as Armenian houses or on the exterior walls of the Chehel Sotun Palace, which also turned a hand to the depiction of the exotic foreigner but from a Persian point of view). The intention of a European clientele is derived from the rectangular shape of the canvas, which hints at an element of portability. These suites lack the architectural jigsawing of their Persian equivalents that have intentionally arched tops in order to fit snugly to a façade.

The parallels drawn with Mannerist inspired image series including those by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (Jacob and His Twelve Sons, c.1640-44) placed the Isfahani oils in a context of contemporary practice. Sims’s identification of quotations from European sources, including those from portraits of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria that were owned by Shah Safi (r. 1629 – 1642) amongst others, further demystified stylistic elements within the Safavid canvases and made direct connections with their possible sources. The two suites of ‘people from parts unknown’ still pose more puzzles for the viewer, particularly the enigmatic blonde male which remains without a matching female equivalent but who possesses a strikingly individualized face. Their abusiveness is however an enduring factor in their fascination, and some of the pairs recently provided the grand finale to the exhibition Sehnsucht Persien in Zurich earlier this year. They have too evidently provided a fertile riddle for Sims to decipher, but one that she eloquently unravels to great effect.